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The Bold and the Beautiful

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:27 November 26 2009]
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Zhang Shihe interviews a migrant worker in Shaanxi Province who helped build the Xiangfan-Chongqing railway 40 years ago. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Shihe

"Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to make things up," he said. "We should strike a balance between protecting civil rights and maintaining social stability."

The number of Chinese bloggers hit 181 million by June 30, according to statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center.

As people find it difficult to have their opinions published on the traditional media, more Chinese are turning to the web to publish what they see and what they think, sparking a rise in citizen journalism, according to Chan. The public voice grows louder and more open, some observers have noted. Many formerly taboo issues barely seem to merit blocking at all today, Ai argued.

"Now there are more possibilities and a higher degree of freedom in Chinese society," Ai said. "Ideological control no longer fits, nor can it convince any people anymore."

The exact same restrictions and controls occur in other parts of the world, claimed an expert who requested anonymity. As an example, he cited the Guardian newspaper of England report this September that the British oil trader Trafigura had dumped toxic waste in waters off the Ivory Coast.

A high court injunction forbad reporting of this case by traditional media but within hours of the ban, both the case and the ban were revealed on Twitter.

Ai himself turned to Twitter after his blogs were closed and became a fan of brief, penetrating punchlines.

"Chairman Mao was the first in the world to use Twitter," Ai said. "All his quotations are within 140 words."

Tofu & Twitter

On November 3, Ai sent a Twitter that volunteers and staff members of his studio had sent a package of applications for the disclosure of government information on the Sichuan earthquake last year to the education department of Sichuan Province.

At the same time, they were busy sending similar applications to other provincial government branches, such as the department of civil affairs, the department of construction and earthquake administration. They had raised several hundred specific questions to each department in an attached document to the application, which was based on one year's research and investigation by dozens of volunteers.

To write a blog, Ai often racks his brains and knows his words might reach maybe 10,000 readers. Twitter is different, he said. He never knows how many people will read his message as it is constantly reposted by other Twitterers, spreading fast like a virus.

Because of its high speed and unknown scope of distribution, Ai believes Twitter will replace the traditional blog.

"A bullet targeting nowhere and anywhere is the most dangerous," he said.

Volunteers for his project were first recruited via a post on Ai's blog last year. In that post, he called on people to travel to earthquake-stricken areas and collect names of students who died in the disaster, hoping to reveal the truth and identify responsibility for "tofu" collapsed buildings.

"When the government refused to disclose the names of the victims, the common people saw the possibility of participating in a major public activity," he said. "Democracy is all about participation. It's not based on the decision of a government, but the participation of all citizens with political conscience and responsibility."

Blogging changed Ai's view of the world, his relationship with society and even his lifestyle.

"I became a one-man media," he said. "Before blogging, I was living in the Middle Ages. Now my feelings for time and space are entirely different."

His Sina blog was the most frequently updated, averaging 2.5 posts a day over the last three years. He told Global Times he often thought the story he was writing might be the last.

Because of a sensitive date, all three of his blogs were closed simultaneously earlier this year. At time of closing, he had made more than 2,700 posts and had received 12,070,000 page views.

Wang Xiaofeng once did a survey with the China Sexology Association on whether Chinese women are satisfied with their sex life. After the results came out, he wanted to post them on his blog, but somehow failed no matter how hard he tried.

Wondering what went wrong, Wang tried posting the survey line by line.

Finally, he found the source of his trouble: a percentage in the survey coincided with a sensitive date. Later, he registered an independent domain name.

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